He flew for Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa. He landed planes for the CIA on uneven Cambodian mountain terrain.
In short, Capt. Neil Hansen has stories he can tell for days.
These experiences fill his 2019 book “Flight: An Air America Pilot’s Story of Adventure, Descent and Redemption,” co-written by Luann Grosscup. He has turned the novel into a speaking tour called “The Last Plane Out of Cambodia.”
It’s coming to the Yankee Air Museum, 47884 D St. in Belleville, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 5. Admission is free. Doors close at 8 p.m.
The 82-year-old’s desire is to share his own experiences in different parts of history, particularly his time flying covert missions for the CIA-operated airline Air America in southeast Asia.
Hansen piloted one of the last aircraft out of Cambodia moments before the Khmer Rouge, the communist regime led by Pol Pot, closed the airspace before conducting the Cambodian Genocide.
“Some of the things in the book are rather horrific,” Hansen said. “My escape out of Cambodia and the aftermath being the execution of 1.7 million people.”
One of his most vivid memories is how the airport looked.
“Everything started emptying out,” he said. “Normally, there’s newsstands and pedicabs and things like that. There were tear tracks on the cheeks (of some of my passengers).”
Born in Grand Rapids in 1937, Hansen was raised just outside Interlochen by his mother and her parents. As an enlisted technician in the U.S. Air Force, he said he didn’t receive military aviation training and literally learned on the fly.
“Back in those days, you didn’t need anybody to sign off on checking out an airplane,” he said. “I’ve flown over 130 single-engine airplanes, and learned just by getting in them, reading the manual and getting an innate sense of what the plane is doing.”
After a short stint at the now-defunct Zantop Air Transport Detroit, Hansen entered Hoffa’s circle. What was meant to be a short flight to Chattanooga, Tennessee ended up being a three-month stay for Hansen.
He waited while Hoffa underwent a trial for attempted bribery of a grand juror. Hansen describes Hoffa as a “good guy to work for” and a “workaholic.”
When Hoffa was convicted and sent to federal prison, Hansen said he found an ad in the Washington Post looking for pilots in southeast Asia. It led to Air America.
Hansen rolls out his words in the baritone of a smooth jazz radio DJ. Despite the soothing voice, the former pilot is an expert on heart-pounding aerial adventures.
“Adrenaline back in the day was kind of the wine of aviation,” he said. “The equipment was a lot more primitive than it is today, where autopilots take over and fly the entire trip…no radar to direct you to the proper place….I enjoyed the challenge.”
This constant search for adrenaline, as he writes in the book, led to drug smuggling in the Caribbean and some time in federal prison.
“That pretty much cured me,”said Hansen, who now lives in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. “I began writing and resolving all of these experiences, and I managed to calm myself down.”
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